Iceland is a phenomenal country to visit. The land of fire and ice indeed! It is set up to welcome tourists, but it’s not overrun with them (at least not in the shoulder months of June and September). This blog post shares the highlights and tips based on Erin’s recent 3 week journey to this spectacular island nation. Erin traveled from June 11-30, 2015 with her friend Jill from the Yukon (the Iceland of Canada if you will – the same latitude). For family and friends, this post should give a pretty good overview of Erin’s experiences. For hopeful travelers, you can treat this as a starting point or complement to other research you do, but hopefully the below helps you plan a trip of a lifetime to Iceland.
In this post, find:
Why Iceland is awesome to visit
The 10 best places to visit in Iceland
Stay tuned though, my next post will feature:
How to have a low budget trip to Iceland
How to prepare for your trip
What to pack for your trip to Iceland
Tips for a great trip to Iceland
Why Iceland is awesome to visit
1) Iceland is quickly becoming a tourist destination, but there is still so much untouched land and modestly populated places to visit. Basically, nature as well as peace and quiet are very doable in this destination.
2) There are no mosquitos! This means you can be outside as much as you want and even sleep outside without fearing pesky mosquitos or the diseases they sometimes carry in other destinations in the world.
3) There are no wild animals to watch for. That’s right – no bears to worry about (besides the odd polar bear drifting ashore from an iceberg due to climate change). Camping is pretty stress-free.
4) This time of year there is 24 hour light so even if you get lost, you don’t have to worry about freezing to death or losing visuals on where you came from.
5) There are a million awesome vistas! Keep in mind there are very few trees/forests in Iceland so you can often see for miles…and there is always something to look at. From volcanic mountains, to glaciers to fjords, Iceland has it all. Early in your tour, you’ll find there are dozens of waterfalls along most roads and paths. Magic! Iceland makes a great photographer out of anyone.
6) Hitchhiking is common and easy. If you’re looking to get a lift back to your car after a day of hiking or if you’re looking to save on renting a car, lots of people hitchhike easily around the island. For us, it was a source of meeting great people too.
7) The crime rate is super low. It’s easy to feel safe and relax.
8) Although Iceland is known for being an expensive place to visit, there are so many amazing things to see that cost nothing. As we drove between key destinations, we would find something absolutely stunning to visit every 15 minutes.
9) Camping is free! So Iceland has a rule that as long as it’s not private property (such as a farmer’s field – the sheep can normally tip you off to this) or a national park, you are permitted to camp for free. Some places request you stay just one night. If you’re inconspicuous and respectful (don’t leave your garbage or toilet paper around, find a spot behind a little hill, etc) then you could do all of your “accommodations” for free. The paid campsites that are often in beautiful spots and/or near or in cities will often cost $10-13 USD per night per person. That’s pretty reasonable given the high cost of hostels and hotels.
10) Parking is easy and readily available. No wasting time hunting for a spot. Unlike touring many places in North American where parking is scarce and expensive at times, there is always a place to park in Iceland and you will likely not be paying for it unless you’re in Reykjavik. Parking overnight is also common and generally unregulated (meaning free and okay to do, which is great for back country camping).
The 10 best places to visit in Iceland
It is an absolute must to get out of the capital of Reykjavik and tour the ring road.This list is generated from our tour around the Ring Road (we did the loop clockwise). All of these things are awesome, in the order of our trip timeline. On our adventure, we didn’t make it to the West Fjords or the central highlands which I think would have otherwise dominated the below list based on what I’ve heard so definitely plan to add those to your list.
1) The Golden Circle: Geysir, Gullfoss, Thingvellir
The Golden Circle is a loop many tour buses do as a day trip from Reykjavik. If you’re only in Iceland a few days (for example if you’re on a free stopover between North America and Europe with Icelandair – do look into this), this is a worthwhile trip to do by rental car, hitchhiking or bus. You see geysirs (steaming water bursting from the ground), one of Iceland’s most renowned waterfalls – Gullfoss, and Thingvellir. Thingvellir really captivated me as it is not only a UNESCO world heritage site, but it’s also the historic site of the world’s first parliament and it’s the park known for these amazing fissures that illustrate where the tectonic plates are separating (at a rate of about 1 inch per year).
Prepare to get wet as you walk up the path to Gullfoss.
Thingvellir is a national park which means a small fee for camping, but it is well worth it. There are plenty of hikes to do (both very flat as well as more challenging options) and you can see a spectacular waterfall running through one of the largest tectonic fissures. If you are a diver, Silfra fissure is found here which is a very popular spot to dive between the two continents.
Above right see the location of the world’s first parliament.
2) Snaefellsnes Peninsula
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is located on Iceland’s west coast, north of Reykjavik. It boasts picturesque seashores, rocky cliffs, a view of a glacier from everywhere you roam, lava fields to walk through and brisk winds. The hiking is pretty flat and easy along the coast so this is great for beginners as well as those wanting to focus on the surroundings instead of a climb.
We started our walk from just outside Hellnar, a place with a cute church, tourist centre and cafe.
Walking across lava fields is a little tricky on the ankles, so plan to take your time. The landscape is unworldly and neat to experience.
Dritvik is a walk-in-only destination. It’s a horseshoe beach with some shelter from the wind. There is an emergency shelter there for people wanting a roof over their heads (the door is always unlocked). The beach is black pebbles/sand. We watched whales out in the water from our perch on the beach where we cooked dinner and camped. Now that’s dinner and a show.
This northern fishing town is colourful and quaint. There are many little shops to visit, cafes and restaurants, but the real attraction is the Herring Era Museum. I like museums, but often they are not a highlight of a trip. This one is awesome. There are three buildings – the actual residence of women who worked packing fish in the early 1900s which has undergone few changes from the original set-up (quite authentic), the factory where fish was processed (canning as well as extraction of oil for export) and a phenomenal display of boats, tools and images of the industry from the early 1900s until the 1960s. It is amazing to think how fast the industry transformed the area and how now it’s just a sleepy little village again.
There is a campground downtown within a short walking distance to the docks, shops and cafes.
The area is prone to avalanches and landslides, so the government built a huge retaining hill so to speak to divert any problems. We hiked the hill and got a great view of the inlet.
If you’re going to do one museum in Iceland, the Herring Era Museum is worth the visit.
This place has it all! It’s got beautiful lake views, bubbling mud, waterfalls (en route), natural hot pools, volcanic mountains and more.
On the way, stop at Godafoss which are significant horseshoe falls with awesome views from both sides. Walking down to the water to watch the water rush down is pretty awesome….plus you get to be in everyone’s photos too. We went with Martin and Andre, hitchhikers we picked up in Akureyri and spent the better part of a day with.
Psedocraters at Skútustadir (left). Turquoise pool in the mountains not far from the hot pools and steaming pools. Snow and steam close by each other.
Known as the “poor man’s blue lagoon”, visiting the Naturebath thermal pool in Myvatn is only about $35CAD and beer is $9. There are 4 different pools at different temperatures. You can stay all day, have lunch onsite, relax, steam, meet new friends. We went with our hitchhiking friends Andre and Martin and also met twins from Toronto there, Alex and Austin and then ran into them the following day at Dimmuborgir shown below.
Beat the wind by warming up on a hike up Hverfjall, a huge volcanic crater. Hike right up the side of it and then do the full loop around in no time.
Bubbling mud and steaming lakes are pretty bizarre sights for most travelers, so don’t miss Mt. Námafjall or the hot lake across from the thermal pools. Iceland expects people to manage their own safety so mind your walking and proximity to these areas as you visit, as warning signs and safety partitions are few. There are other places to visit in this area as well, so setting aside a few days would be smart.
5) Jökulsárgljúfur National Park and Dettifoss
Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is Iceland’s most visited park, probably because of the amazing diversity of land forms all in one location, as well as the proximity to the breath-taking Dettifoss falls.
The honeycomb basalt formation is most spectacular at this site, although it can be seen in other regions as well.
The cave and red rock mountains are accessible on a short 40 min-1 hour hike.
Dettifoss has more water surging down than any other waterfall in Iceland. It’s loud and captivating. If you do the short hike beyond Dettifoss, you’ll see Selfoss which is stunning, especially late at night (as the sun “sets” or dips if you will). These pics were taken shortly before midnight.
Although you may not be able to pronounce this adorable eastern town nestled between two fjords, you must visit it. Remember that scene from the “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” movie where Ben Stiller is long boarding down this steep switch-backing road? Well that’s this place. It’s small so the attractions are the views, kayaking, the Bistro restaurant and art gallery, the hotel cafe and the sheep perhaps.
Above see the winding road that leads down to the town as well as some more great falls.
Having pizza and beer is a must. They have a big selection of games and puzzles (it’s especially helpful to know Icelandic if you’re planning on playing trivia) at the Bistro Skaftfell as well as an art gallery on the second floor.
Hang out by the water for a little bit and you’ll meet Hlynur Oddsson, a very animated and energetic man who runs kayaking tours along the fjords. Even with the fog, it was a nice way to spend a morning.
If you want to see icebergs, this is the place for you. You could sit for hours watching the icebergs float around, listen for them breaking up and spot a seal or two making a playground of this lagoon. The Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður Glacier is the backdrop to this scene, as it is the reason the lagoon exists. The glacier is receding at a rate of 5 metres per year. Most of this huge glacier (8100 square kms) is floating and a very small area actually makes contact with the earth below it.
Summer solstice is a special day every year, a time to live it up during the longest sunlight day of the year. This was the perfect destination for such a day. Nothing like glacier-cooled beer to ring in the new season. Below is the glacier up close from a zodiac boat ride.
If you head further east along the glacier, you can hike in Skaftafell National Park. We hiked across a flat river bed for a few hours and came to our very own private glacial lagoon with icebergs. Camping here is permitted (and free) so we listened to the “thunder” as we nodded off, the sound of the glacier calving.
Be ready for a few small river crossings on this hike. It’s a flat hike and depending on the time of day/year, the rivers are fairly shallow, but you’ll want to come prepared.
8) Vik and surronding areas
The south shore town is pretty adorable with a few nice restaurants, black sand beaches, puffins, as well as tons of great picnic spots. There is a campground with decent facilities at the edge of town. The rugged coast and basalt edges are featured on many postcards for the country.
We met a sweetheart named Trenor from Florida who is a tour guide. We took a load off on some basalt columns together over “dinner” at Reynisfjara.
Dyrholaey features a view of a bridge-like natural land mass jutting out into the ocean as well as dunes.
It’s no wonder that the majority of Icelandic people believe firmly in elves. When you see the magic landscapes of a place like Maelifell (below), you definitely expect an elf to walk out of one of the mysterious caves at any moment.
9) Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago (Westman Islands)
After a brisk and very rough (aka fun) ferry ride from a port just 1 hour southeast of Reykjavik, you arrive at this cute little fishing town on Heimaey Island. You can walk the whole island or take your car. This volcanic island allows you to walk on earth created only a few decades ago. They have a new museum telling the story of their most recent volcano (Eldfell) that expanded the island by 2 square kms in 1973. The island is near Surtsey, the newest island on earth, created in 1963, which you can view on touring boats leaving regularly from Heimaey.
We hiked the volcano with Rob, a friendly writer from New York who we had picked up hitchhiking a couple days prior on the mainland.
Put bricks in your bag to climb this volcano…..the wind is the strongest most will ever experience.
The house seen below was moved from its original place by flowing lava, but remained mostly in tact.
The campground is near a golf course and located in a volcanic crater. They have a couple sod-roofed houses you can set up camp inside if the conditions aren’t right for camping. This saves tents from the wrath of the wild wind.
Just west of the ferry port to Heimaey from the mainland, is Gljúfurárfoss which is a waterfall you can walk behind. This is the only place I’ve ever seen a full circle rainbow (in the mist of the falls). Plan to get wet!
The capital city has lots to offer and if you can only make it to Reykjavik, you can still see a lot. There are tons of hotels and hostels, as well as a campground walking distance from downtown. There are restaurants, shopping and pubs galore. Happy hour is essential. Getting a beer for $5CAD is very satisfying as compared to the $15 sometimes charged in the small outlying towns.
Cheap beer and internet were great at Bravo (left). Their location is nice, situated downtown on the main strip, although their menu is basically non-existent. Stick with beer. Sampling the flight of beer at Micro Bar (right), a popular spot located in Center Hotel had come highly recommended. It was neat to rate and taste, but we rated most below a 5/10.
The weekend flea market is a great mix of local food, plastic stuff and great junk. Hunting for a famous Iceland wool sweater? You’ll find it here.
The downtown campground has great facilities from a huge cook house, lounge space, laundry, clean restrooms, internet, etc. We joined Jason and Aaron for breakfast, some nice guys from British Columbia who did a huge bike trip around the island.
The Harpa building is beautiful. It’s an arts centre with lots of performances, a couple fancy gift shops and lovely architecture.
Enjoy a sunny afternoon on the roof of the Loft Bar…during happy hour of course.
The Hallgrímskirkja Church is a very popular sight to see in Reykjavik. On the way, you’ll see the statue of Leif Erikson, the Icelander known for potentially reaching North America before Columbus.
Above see the view from the top of the church.
The Laundromat Cafe is a hip spot to get nice coffee and dessert (featured in left photo) and Taco Barinn has yummy seafood, veggie, beef, etc. tacos (Monday specials too). We ran into Trenor again which was a major treat! We also met another tour guide – Caroline from Banff, Alberta who was a riot too. Emlah, our server from Taco Barinn joined us on our pub crawl.
Just off of downtown is Videy Island. This quaint little adventure provides easy walking, a small restaurant/cafe, a church and of course….a boat trip. One of the other highlights is Yoko Ono’s Peace Tower.
We heard lots of people say they liked Akureyri (a fairly large city), Hofn as well as Husavik (in the above pic – a small town in the north that attracts whale-watchers). We liked all places moderately but they didn’t capture us like the other places listed above.
The are no destinations that will really disappoint, so enjoy your trip!
Huge shout out to Maciej and Rhiannon who lent us their trip itinerary which basically was our guide. Thanks to the great people we met on the trip including Andre from Portugal, Martin from Slovakia, Trenor from Florida, Rob from New York, Aaron and Jason from British Columbia, Taylor from Texas, Caroline from Banff, Emlah from Iceland, Tom from New Zealand and everyone else. Thanks to Merredith for offering some great wisdom while getting ready for this trip and lending me some awesome gear. Thanks to Jackson for being a great support and sending me off with a smile. And thanks to Jill for being the researcher for the trip and making something truly unforgettable come together.
**Stay tuned for another post featuring tips, how to do the trip on the cheap, etc**